Produced by Breaklight Pictures, part of The Content Group (TCG), and executive produced by Dan Johnstone, Derek Owen, Jeff Daniels, Steve Michaels, Jodi Flynn and Adam Bercovici, American Cartel (2021) is a three part docueseries that will debut on discovery+ March 30th.
On the night of November 15, 2003, shots were fired in the parking lot of a hotel in Burbank, California. The shootout led to the execution-style murder of Officer Matthew Pavelka and left Officer Gregory Campbell critically injured. With one of their own taken and another’s life hanging in the balance, Burbank PD immediately called in support from dozens of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to unite on an epic scale and track down Pavelka’s killer. The unprecedented manhunt quickly led them to the heart of gang territory where they made a series of unsettling discoveries about the local Vineland Boys gang, whose caches of automatic weapons and high-grade methamphetamines suggested they were more violent, more sophisticated and stealthier than previously thought. Once they realize their suspect, David Garcia, seemingly vanished in the night across the border, they discover that the Vineland Boys’ connections to Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartels are very real – and very deadly.
What began as a race to find a cop killer quickly becomes a mission to take down a gang that brought the drugs and violence of the cartels to American suburbs, and exposes how Mexican cartels were already deeply entrenched in the U.S. American Cartel showcases commentary from many of the law enforcement members who worked tirelessly to bring Pavelka’s killer to justice, including Ret. Det. Gregory Campbell (Burbank PD) who survived the incident. The doc also showcases U.S. Marshals and various representatives from the LAPD including members from their Gang Unit, SWAT, Special Operations, and members of the Major Crimes Unit, such as s Ret. Lt. Adam Bercovici, who lent his investigators and surveillance teams to the manhunt and later the task force. Additionally, providing his own expert insight, an ex “Mexican Mafia” gang member in silhouette and disguised as “Mundo” sheds light into the inner workings of the gangs and their ties to the Mexican cartels. His identity remains anonymous.
I thought this docueseries was extremely well-paced. Not just with the plotting of events and making sure not to rush through any crucial information, but also with keeping the energy and intensity high. This series was very well edited and the cutting from interviews to news footage to reenactments of events never felt too jarring. Sometimes a documentary can rush through information or spend too much time on a certain moment, and I felt this docueseries did little of either. I felt that the reenactments were quite effective. Not only were they well shot with some really impressive lighting, but I think the filmmakers did a good job of not making the reenactments come across as too cheesy or hoaky, which is often a trap that some documentaries (especially historical ones) fall into. Part of that was accomplished by keeping most of the actors shrouded in darker lighting or avoiding showing their face at all, except when they used the actual interview subjects who were there. This viel helped the reenactments feel more realistic and made the transition to interviews and real news footage feel less jarring.
If it wasn’t clear from the plot synopsis, there’s a lot to this event as well as to the investigation that followed. The documentary and interview subjects I thought did a great job of really spelling everything out for us (which in the case of documentaries I think that is a good thing as I think the best documentaries allow their subject to be easy to understand and interesting to anyone who knows little to anything about the subject). Considering most of them were retired and had years of law enforcement experience, and that this event happened almost 20 years ago, all the interviewees did a great job of breaking the events and what’s at stake down into layman’s terms. Something that the filmmakers did in editing that was also extremely helpful and effective at making the story easy to follow was including this timeline of how long before and after the cop shooting events took place. It was extremely helpful in keeping track of everything.
I thought it was unfortunate that they didn’t get any interviews from David Garcia’s friends or family for the docueseries. Not necessarily to ‘humanize’ him but more so to get an understanding as to how this 19 year-old kid got wrapped up in all this drug trafficking and gang business. Maybe they did try to, and in that case I understand if the friends and family didn’t want to participate. I think it’s just that the doc was able to interview an ex ‘Mexican Mafia’ member nicknamed “Mundo,” who remained anonymous, who explained the inner workings of gangs and how they suck you into that life. I thought those segments with him were extremely compelling and I think it would’ve been interesting to get a bit more of that side of the story. I think the second half of the last episode also faltered a bit. It was just a bit rattling because one aspect of the story concludes about halfway through the final episode, and so they get more into a different side of the story. I understand why, I just wish with how well the rest of the episodes were paced before they would’ve either expanded more on this aspect of the story or made it more conclusive. I understand that in real life the story is quite possibly still going, but even then I think they could’ve helped to make that a bit clearer.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Both a loving tribute to the young Officer Matthew Pavelka who lost his life that night, and a thrilling manhunt that leads the investigators to discover something bigger and more deadly might be involved. American Cartel (2021) is a well told narrative that also serves as an extremely informative, fast-paced docueseries that only loses its focus a bit towards the end.